Ten Home Truths About Starting In Self-publishing

This month marks my one-year anniversary at Smashwords. I started with His Name In Lights, which had been published previously, and now have sixteen items up, ranging from hard SF to non-fiction to fantasy. Short stories, novellas and novels.

Here are a few things I’ve learned in the process shared here for the beginning self-publishing writer.

1. You know Amanda Hocking, and Joe Konrath and them?
Yeah, you are going to forget their names and the fact that they’ve had phenomenal successes right now. They exist in a different universe where possibilities and probabilities have been interchanged and where luck smiles down on everyone. That is the universe you’ll find if you take a right turn at the sign that says winners only. But the way is almost always blocked.

2. Don’t expect anything
That way, you’ll be pleased with modest successes, because modest, they will be. Most of the successful self-publishers have a few things in common: they have already sold well in paper or, they have a large stable of available novels, preferably both. They are also likely to have a fair bit of experience in the literary world. And luck. See point 1.

3. First, make sure you can write
This issue should be an open door, but you only need to visit the Kindleboards briefly to see that some authors rely on their Amazon reviews to tell them what’s wrong with the book. For crying out loud, don’t slap your first finished novel on there without having an inkling of whether it’s actually any good style and technique wise. Join a workshop, a critique group or similar. Do they tell it it’s all fine and dandy? Go and find someone who tells you your writing sucks. Listen to this person’s arguments. Tighten your prose. Fix meandering plots. Learn to write. Sell a few short stories first. I made the pact with myself that I wouldn’t self-publish until I had met the criteria to join SFWA as full member. Make sure you can write. I cannot say this clearly enough.

4. Don’t go overboard with expenses – make your writing self-sustaining
Remember point 1? Your sales are likely to be very small initially. If you have numerous titles, it is easy to spend lots on covers, formatting and editing. Most of that money will take a long time to recoup. If you get discouraged, you’ll never recoup it.
Editing is expensive. Any editor who charges $200 can’t possibly do a good job, because of the amount of time it takes. A good editor will charge at least $1000. That’s a lot of books to be sold. You have to remember that editing enhances a work. It does not save it. If you need editing to save your work from bad grammar or bad plots, go back to point 3 (in other words: learn to write). Do the best you can and then swap books with a fellow self-publisher for an el-cheapo copy-edit. You may get all the missing words and other things spellcheck doesn’t pick up. You may not. But the level of error will be within acceptable levels.

5. If you’re going to spend money, do it on the cover first
A professional cover artist is expensive. There are countless people on DeviantArt who will do a decent job for not all that much money. Alternatively get Photoshop and do something yourself. No, it won’t be professional, but it can be two other things: pretty and effective. Pretty and attractive draws eyes on crowded web listings. Make up a few alternative covers and ask people what they think about the cover and what they think the cover suggests the book is about (the latter should match your genre). Adjust according to comments. Use it for the book until you have sold enough to justify a good cover artist.

6. Many roads lead to Rome
Don’t forget to keep submitting your work to traditional publishers. Having published in both ways can reinforce your name. There is no need to be snobby about ‘the publishing industry’. Unless you know a lot about it, and can demonstrate that knowledge, you’ll just end up looking like a dick.

7. Paid advertising does not work
Goodreads ads, Facebook ads, I’ve heard very few good results. They may work once you’re a known name, but for an unknown, you’ll end up sounding like every other wannabe out there. Only more desperate. Desperate is bad.

8. Don’t forget to keep writing
The only thing that’s sure to increase your sales is the release of a new book.

9. Whichever way you publish, making sales is never easy
See point 7. Every promotion activity has limited effect. Books sell because of the cumulative effect of the cover, the blurb and various other factors, such as author name. But until you have a name, your name won’t sell. Building a name is not easy. It’s slow and happens through a great variety of factors, the most important one of which is to write a gripping book. Yelling into a mass crowd ‘buy my book’ is very unlikely to be successful.

10. Love your books
Because at times, you’ll feel nobody else does. Treat your finished books with love and respect. Don’t disparage them, don’t talk them down.


26 comments on “Ten Home Truths About Starting In Self-publishing

    • The thing is, the effort is worth it, but, as with traditional publishing, it is neither easy nor quick. Just a whole lot more satisfactory.

  1. Thank you for this – after being in kindle-denial for a couple of years I’m just beginning to put some of my books up online and look at other people’s self publishing ideas.. I think I’ll probably end up buying more books than i sell, though – every time I go looking for advice I get sidelined by their novels

  2. Thank you for this. I’m published but have this sequel to the first book I would like to put on Amazon just to see what will happen. Your advice is spot on. I just hope my “baby” doesn’t get overlooked.

    It’s the promotion that I fear now.

    • It will get overlooked, in the way the far majority of books on Amazon get overlooked.

      However, I know more than just a handful of such ‘overlooked’ fiction, people who you would never have heard of, who are making some very decent money on Amazon while remaining overlooked and under the radar.

  3. Co-incidentally, I’ve just put up a post about self-publishing, too, at http://satimaflavell.blogspot.com/2012/01/real-self-publishing.html

    It’s written from the POV of one who is an editor and keen reader. As an editor, I’m really keen to see the standard of self-pubbed books improve. Some are so crappy that they are downright embarrassing, and a pretty cover, while it might induce a few people to buy a book, will not bring repeat business. So while I agree a fetching cover is important, I’m convinced that editing is more important in the long run if a writer hopes to build a following. But you don’t need to spend a months wages – I give pointers to saving money on editing. You’ve done them all, Patty, but sadly there are a lot of writers out there who don’t even know they exist, and most of them seem to publish on Smashwords:-(

    • You know, for me, the ‘this needs editing’ tag falls in the category ‘this writer can’t write’.

      Poor editing is usually the least of the author’s troubles. Most poorly edited work is poor because the author can’t write. Editing is not going to save it.

  4. “Any editor who charges $200 can’t possibly do a good job, because of the amount of time it takes.”
    I have to disagree. 🙂

    “If you’re going to spend money, do it on the cover first”
    And I have to disagree again. 🙂

    First and foremost, no matter how amazing your cover is, if the writing sucks and the work is full of mistakes, typos and plot holes, then you won’t sell another book. Word gets out.
    If you invest money, invest it in an editing service, or find an editor who does freelance work. Not all editors charge megabucks, because they want to eat too. Shop around. Get opinions, referrals. Most freelance editors I know charge by the page. The more work they have to do, the more expensive it gets. And no editor will “fix” your story for you. They’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, but it’s up to you to take the advice. They won’t write it for you.
    I do know very good editors who charge a lot less than $1000. A LOT less, and they do good work.
    But it really depends what you ask them to do. If you send them a first draft and expect everything to be fixed in one pass — that’s simply not going to happen, unless you are an extremely clean writer with a good grasp on your craft, grammar, punctuation and spelling.
    More passes cost more money. So don’t send out a book you bashed out for NaNo and never looked at again.
    And for God’s sake, if your editor is honest with you and urges you not to publish the book as it is…then do yourself a favor and listen.
    You can only make one first impression, and it better be the one you want to make.

    I totally agree with your comment of “Most poorly edited work is poor because the author can’t write. Editing is not going to save it.”

    If I see mistakes in a publisher published book, I do ask why no one spotted it (though stuff gets overlooked on the 27th pass. :P). If I see mistakes in a self published book… well. Either there was no editor, or the editor saw it and pointed it out, but the author didn’t fix it (but blames the editor), or it was a lousy editor. Most of the time, in edited books, I lean toward #2 of this scenario.

    • I agree with you in principle, but I also want to point out that I said that if you need an editor to save your work from bad plot holes, bad grammar and bad spelling, you should go back to square one and learn to write. No editor you can afford will fix your work for you. In such cases, it’s completely useless to pay any amount of money for editing. An editor will not fix your bad writing. Any writer who thinks it’s OK to send a NaNo first draft and get it ‘edited’ for $200 needs to learn how to write.

      I am an editor too, sometimes. I know people who call themselves editors because they’ve done a course or two and like being nitpicky about language. I also know editors with degrees who work freelance for large publishers. I’m saying that it’s not worth shelling out $200 for the first, because you can just as easily swap manuscripts with a nitpicky writer-friend. It is worthwhile to get the second, because they’re a whole different level. I know none of these professional editors who charge les than $1000, and by golly, I’ll pay it so that I don’t have to do any more proofreading myself. But backyard editing I can do myself. I am a backyard editor.

  5. Pingback: Ten Home Truths About Starting In Self-publishing (via @pattyjansen) | Literarium – The Blog

  6. Thank you for the balanced insight. I have been rewriting the novel that I am planning to publish for months, and am glad that my instinct to hold off a bit is supported by your opinion.

    Hopefully, more people planning on self-publishing their work will get a chance to read this posting!

    • The best thing you can do with a first novel is join a critique group.
      Some people advocate paying someone, but this potentially creates another layer of skewed opinions. If you pay someone to look at your work, some of these people feel obliged to give a review that will please you. Someone you don’t pay will not feel any of that kind of pressure. There are good paid assessors, but they’re not cheap, and you need to do some digging around to find out who they are.

  7. Amanda Hocking has said she never expected to have much luck selling ebooks. She was only aiming to earn a few hundred dollars to pay for a trip to a comic book convention she wanted to attend. Writers need to love the craft of writing, because very few of us see a fraction of what the bestsellers do. Remember, they are bestsellers because they outsold the rest of us. I know very few true writers who do it for the money,.

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  9. I appreciate your no-nonsense yet not discouraging advice. I’m self-publishing my novel and have invested a lot of money in editing and design. As well as 12 years on 16 drafts, so this baby is as good as it will ever be.

    Your post reminds me to rein in the spending and expectations, which I’d already started to do. I can do a lot without spending a ton of money. And to me, just finishing Chasing Sylvia Beach and getting it out into the world is a huge success for me. The rest will be gravy!

    Again, thank you for your straight-up tone and advice!

  10. This is a great list! I especially like the no-nonsense beginning and the point about not having mucvh expectations! I remember when I first started as a freelance writer, any money at all was like a revelation! It still feels awesome, because I don’t can never wondering why people want to pay for what I write. It’s a healthy approach 😀

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